Hello. My name is Tullian Tchividjian. I used to be a pastor. Some would even say a successful pastor. I was leading a large church that had a school and a seminary, writing a book a year, traveling extensively all over the country speaking at conferences and churches and various events. However one wants to define “celebrity pastor”, I was one. And then it all came crashing down.
Two things I had come to believe were secure forever (apart from my relationship to God) were my 21-year marriage and my calling as the senior pastor of the historic Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Both came crumbling down during the spring and early summer of 2015.
First my marriage. Then my position at the church. And with those two losses came a thousand other losses. The loss of close friendships, the loss of financial stability, the loss of purpose, the loss of confidence in God’s goodness, the loss of hope, the loss of joy, the loss of opportunity, the loss of life as I knew it. Life went from feeling like a fairy tale to feeling like a violent tragedy.
But as shocking and painful as all these losses were, my instinctive response shocked me even more: the rage, the blame-shifting, the thirst for revenge, the bitter arrogance, the self-justified resentment, the dark self-righteousness, the control-hungry manipulation, the deluded rationalization, the deep selfishness, the perverted sense of entitlement. Maybe these disgusting things which flowed from my depths with such natural ease shouldn’t have shocked me. After all, I was well known for talking about my own messed-upness, talking openly about my sin and selfishness, my faults and fears, my pride and pains.
I never pretended to have it all together. In fact, one of the reasons people listened to my sermons and read my books and came out to hear me speak when I was traveling is because I was honest about my brokenness and the amazing grace of God that covers us at our worst. I was known for saying that God loves bad people because bad people are all that there are. So I knew I was bad. I just didn’t know I was THAT bad.
The truth is, though, that we are very good lawyers when it comes to our own mistakes, but very good judges when it comes to the mistakes of others. As one of my counselors told me early on, circumstances don’t create the condition of the heart. Rather, circumstances reveal the condition of the heart. And what was revealed to me about my heart in the fiery hotness of dire circumstances was scary and destructive. This disgusting truth about myself (and the desperate aloneness that I felt because of it) made me want to commit suicide. In my darkest moment (after researching for two hours the best way to kill myself), I wrote this:
Words cannot express the pain I feel for the hurt I’ve caused. It has become too much to bear. Based on what I’ve done and the pain I’ve caused, I have concluded that it is safer for all those I love that I just disappear.
Life without hope is death.
At the end, I tried. I really, really tried. God knows that my apologies and my expressions of love were real. So real. But what does that matter when the people you want so bad to believe you, don’t? I understand why they didn’t. Given my recent track record, why would they? So when it became clear that those I love most wanted nothing to do with me, the choice I needed to make became clear.
Initially, I got angry and defensive when I was told that I’m a monster, evil, disgustingly dangerous, etc. But it has sunk in and I finally believe it. I am all those things. Lord have mercy.
One final word to the church: when people screw up bad, try to help them. Do your best to sacrifice anything and everything to help them. More than likely, they screwed up bad because they need help. Don’t turn your back on them. Pursue them. Something isn’t right with them and they need help. Even if they have hurt you bad, do everything you can to help them.
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
How did I get to this point of total desperation? How did I arrive at that dark place where I actually wanted to kill myself?
What I see now that I couldn’t see then is that this explosion had been building for a few years. The shift from locating my identity in the message of the Gospel to locating my identity in my success as amessenger of the Gospel was slow and subtle. It came on like the slow creep of the tide rather than a sudden tidal wave. I painfully learned that the more you anchor your identity and sense of worth in something or someone smaller than God, the more pain you will experience when you lose it all.
My confidence was severely misplaced: Confidence in status, reputation, power and position, the way I spoke, the praise I received, financial security and success. In other words, confidence in things that were smaller than God and his grace—confidence in things that were unstable and fleeting and easily taken away. Because I had existentially located my significance in things smaller than God, my loss did not simply usher in grief and pain and shame and regret. It ushered in a severe identity crisis. Without these things and people that I had come to depend on to make me feel like I mattered, I no longer knew who I was. I felt dead. Therefore, I might as well be dead.
The journey God has taken me on over the last two years has been one of complete deconstruction…not just externally but internally. The exploration of who I am, who God is, what is real, what matters, and so on, has been one of pure stripping. It has felt like my skin being painfully ripped from my bones. Just when I think I can’t take anymore, God seems to dig deeper. As painful as it has been, however, it has also been very liberating. As my counselor and mentor told me the other day, “The purpose behind the suffering you are going through is to kick you into a new freedom from false definitions of who you are.” So true. Death before resurrection has always been and will always be Gods mode of operation. Dark desperation always precedes deep deliverance. That is my hope. That is my only lifeline.
So, whether you’re a pastor or an ex-pastor or just a beat-up and burned out human, here’s the good news: Who you really are has nothing to do with you — how much you can accomplish, who you can become, what you’ve done or failed to do, the size of your church or the size of your sin, your behavior (good or bad), your strengths, your weaknesses, your family background, your education, your looks and so on. Your identity is firmly anchored in Christ’s accomplishment, not yours; his strength, not yours; his performance, not yours; his victory, not yours. The gospel doesn’t just free you from what other people think about you; it frees you from what you think about yourself.
This means that He is the light at the end of your dark tunnel. And He’s not going anywhere. Others may leave, but He will stay. As Winston Churchill famously said, “When you’re going through hell, keep walking.”
Your life is far from over. In fact, it may be just beginning.